When groups of Piaroa laugh and tease a young man who just farted, they feel the merriment helps preserve everyone’s good health—much as Germans might say gesundheit to people who sneeze. But the intentions of the Piaroa go deeper than simple fun. They believe that the fart may release powerful contaminants, which the man may have gotten from his father-in-law, so the laughter helps give them real protection from danger.

In a new article, Joanna Overing examines Piaroa culture in terms of their ability to laugh, not only at bodily noises and functions, but also more broadly at the folly of so much that surrounds them. She explains how their myths, the basis of their beliefs, represent the creation and order of the world, but their stories about the creator gods are confused with a lot of foolishness that they like to laugh at. In the process of laughing, they defuse the dangers that the order, productivity, and wealth of the earth pose for people. Overing explains why in her article.

She begins by examining—and rejecting—the colonizing narratives of Western culture about the Amazonian peoples. In support of her argument, she describes the mythic beliefs of the Piaroa, the inter-connections of the creation stories with their everyday experiences, and the ways the myths explain their vision of reality. She indicates that the Piaroa are highly political people, but they strongly value personal and informal relationships based on trust and conviviality. Along with other Amazonian peoples, they have a distaste for hierarchy or coercion, and they much prefer tranquility, comfort, mutuality, and good humor. But they are quite aware of the difficulties in achieving such harmony in their society.

The problems are apparent in their myths, which reveal their views of the universe—or multiverse, as Overing calls it. An essential element in their worldview is what she calls the ludic—the bawdy, the folly, the rowdy. The humor of the gods is slapstick, in part because their creator god, Kuemoi, was a totally whacked-out fool. A madman and a diabolical monster, Kuemoi created gardening, curare, hunting, and other useful arts and skills, but he also laughed raucously as he stomped through creation times. He hatched outrageous plots, stamped his feet, ran endlessly in circles, and shrieked when his plots were foiled. He was a highly comic, rather than a tragic, figure.

He represents for the Piaroa the potential danger that all humans may behave in wicked, odious ways. Kuemoi was driven by a deep-set cruelty, and his complete madness was devoid of reason. His horrid ways, representing humanity’s potential for evil, were based on knowledge and an abundance of power—both of which he obviously had too much of. The other gods and beings of mythic times were also, like Kuemoi, highly paranoid. They ended up consuming each other, a descent into cannibalistic chaos.

Thus, the events of the creation established the existing world and everything that people need—but it also created the potential problems they must contend with. They realize from the stories that ordinary events can lead to violence, mayhem, and murder. The forces for evil need to be carefully controlled.

The Piaroa shaman, the ruwa, stands between the evil of the despicable gods and the health and harmony of their daily lives. The shaman is an imitator of the gods, a trickster and jokester, a master of the art of folly. But through his efforts he is able to make it possible for the rest of the Piaroa community to escape from the evils that the gods have vested on humanity, those poisons that are implicit in the very creation they provided. The shamans chant for hours every night and blow the wording of their chants into water and honey that the people drink the next morning. The drinks protect them from the evil out there for the rest of the day.

As a result, Overing observes, the Piaroa community is “exceedingly comfortable, easygoing, and immensely safe….” She describes an idyllic day in a Piaroa community: “Children played freely. Husbands and wives planned together their activities for the day….[later,] women relaxed, chatting, peeling cassava roots. Men nearby were making darts, weaving baskets, joining in joking with the women; men and women entertaining each other, telling amusing experiences of the day…”(p.20).

All this tranquility and peaceful community spirit is based not only on the protective chanting of the Piaroa shamans but also on the social values held by the people. They take a personal responsibility for their own actions and they accept the need to master their individual powers, much as the ruwa masters the evil forces of the universe. A young man who gets a woman pregnant must continue to live with her, to protect her and the growing fetus that he is responsible for. If he fails in that duty and the woman or their child dies, he would bear the responsibility. The young people must be the masters of their sex organs, especially since the demonic creator gods were so obviously unable to master themselves.

To the Piaroa, it is essential to master their creative energies, whether their own human offspring, their bodily secretions, or their farts. They believe the blood and excretions of the animals they kill, like the waste and gasses from humans, may be possessed by fertile powers and dangers. So they protect themselves and help master harmful forces by joking about farting, by being careful of animal blood or feces, and by chanting to ward off the evils of the creator gods.

Overing concludes her fascinating explanation by describing the contemporary academic scene in Europe (she is at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom), where the spirit of academic collegiality is sometimes threatened by university hierarchies. The values of the university faculty perhaps could be bolstered, she argues, if the lessons of Piaroa society would be considered. The spirit-numbing attitudes of academic bureaucrats might be marginalized if university faculty accepted the possibility that the forces of hierarchy—the evil powers without and within—could be controlled, not so much by the chanting of ruwas in this case, but by the networks of collegiality that academics have mastered.

Overing, Joanna. 2006. “The Backlash to Decolonizing Intellectuality.” Anthropology and Humanism 31(1): 11-40.